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Yin, Yang, and Yuck
by Lucius Shepard
March 3, 2002

I saw a movie last weekend that was actually about something. You can figure that means it was a foreign movie, because most Hollywood pictures aren't about anything . . . or rather they're about who's in them. While they may serve the purposes of some tissue-thin theme or simplistic plotline or piddly stream of pop culture, essentially they're concerned with celebrity, with Brad Pitt's golden incompetence or Julia Roberts' 37 or 38 gleaming caps. However, the movie I saw last weekend, an Australian picture entitled Lantana, directed by Ray Lawrence, took the radical stance of being chiefly concerned with telling an interesting story and developing characters with complicated human depths.

The word "lantana" refers to a type of tropical bush, one that has a bad smell and is a thicket unto itself, a labyrinth of densely interwoven branches and leaves--this bush contrives a metaphor for the materials of the film. Ostensibly a thriller involving the disappearance and possible murder of a psychiatrist, Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), its true focus is upon four troubled marriages and the intricate ways in which they become entangled with one another. Detective Leon Zat (Anthony Lapaglia), who investigates Dr. Somers' disappearance, is married to Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), a patient of the psychiatrist, and is having an affair with Jane O'May (Rachael Blake), whom he and Sonja meet at a Latin dance class. Jane lives next door to Paula (Danielle Farinacci) and Nik Daniels (Vince Colosimo), who eventually becomes a suspect, as does Somers' husband, John Knox (Geoffrey Rush). The Zat marriage has gone stale, and Sonja herself is tempted toward an affair; the O'Mays, already separated, are having difficulty withdrawing from each other; the Daniels are imperiled by the suspicion that Nik may have perpetrated a sex crime. John and Valerie are the most troubled of all. Their young daughter Eleanor was murdered several years before, and they have not recovered from the shocks of that loss. They are alienated one from the other, and their alienation is exacerbated by the fact that Valerie has written a best-selling book about the murder, an act that John finds morally dubious. To further disturb the waters, Valerie comes to suspect that a manipulative homosexual patient, Patrick Phelan (Peter Phelps), is having an affair with John, and she begins to crumble under these pressures.

As Zat initiates his investigation of Valerie's disappearance, at one point forced to interview his mistress, who has evidence suggesting that Nik Daniels may be guilty, director Lawrence uses the investigation as a lens with which to examine the four marriages, and they in turn reflect back upon the mystery. This structural complexity, the braiding of the threads of the crime with the threads of the deteriorating marriages, is accomplished so skillfully, we come to feel that whatever has happened to Valerie is a product less of actual villainy than a consequence arising from the confusions of love gone wrong, and we understand that every one of these characters is imperiled, that they live--as do all who love--in constant danger of harm as a result of their own passionate failures.

Lawrence's masterful conception of structure effects a redefinition of the thriller genre, but it could not have succeeded unless it were brilliantly written by Andre Powell and brilliantly acted by the ensemble cast. That Lapaglia, giving a time-capsule performance, was not short-listed for the Oscar is a travesty, especially in light of Roberto Benini's embarrassing Oscar-winning delirium several years back. Lapaglia's Zat is a man so benumbd by the tedious and horrifying exigencies of his work, he can no longer feel his life except when he is in pain. Thus, driven to feel, he seeks pain out. The cop with psychological troubles and a suffering marriage is a stock character in American television and films, but never before has it been put on screen with anything approaching this level of verisimilitude. Whether weeping in his police cruiser, experiencing chest pains while making monkey love to Jane O'May, or interrogating Valerie's husband in conversations that alert him to his own moral dilemmas, Zat is so precisely realized and carefully nuanced, we understand the nature of his pain before he himself does. At film's end we are amazed that such a stolid, unremarkable person with such ordinary foibles and obsessions could be so fascinating in his meandering, haphazard path back and forth between the poles of rectitude and dissolution.

Lapaglia's is not the only terrific performance. Kerry Armstrong's Sonja, panicked by the unraveling of her marriage, seeking something in herself that will explain things, is note-perfect, as is Rachael Blake's Jane, a woman adrift, attempting by her casual affairs to concoct an antidote to her quintessential boredom. I cannot recall an American movie that contained four women's roles this quietly and subtly defined. Indeed, each of the characters, both male and female, is handled with such clever particularity, one has the sense that if any of them had been made central to the film, they would have held our attention to the same degree that Zat does. They stay with you, these people. They occur to you in the midst of an argument with your significant other, they float through your mind as you wait for sleep. They seem to be.

There is nothing particularly Australian about Lantana. As a matter of fact, it seems very like an American movie, the kind of movie an American director might make if given the leeway to go for quality. Perhaps this is in part due to the presence of Lapaglia and Hershey, who are known as American actors (though Lapaglia was actually born Down Under). But more pertinently, Lantana deals with a niche within a culture that feels American, with circumstances that are redolent of American life. I find it shameful that such a film has not been made here. Then again, Australian directors are renowned for making excellent American films, including perhaps the most purely American picture of the last quarter century, Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies. Maybe American directors should start trying to make Australian films. Maybe that would help. But probably not. If that were the way of things, then we would only see more sequels to Crocodile Dundee.

Okay.

Take a break.

Recalibrate.

From the world in which movies are made for adults, we travel far, far away across time and space and a galaxy of crushed Pepsi cups and popcorn bags to a world in which there are almost no adults.

The Multiplex.

Several days after seeing Lantana, I was possessed by such a profound fit of self-loathing, I took myself to the multiplex and picked out the two cruelest punishments available. The first of these, Rollerball, was so hideous, so debasing to the viewer, I'm inclined to address it mainly by means of metaphor.

For example . . .

If Cheese Whiz was categorized as a food group, Rollerball might be considered a good movie.

If the birth of the universe were a pistol from whose barrel a flag bearing the word BANG writ large was ejected, Rollerball might generally be perceived to be the result of a creative act.

If the human head had a chewy caramel center, Rollerball would be a thought in that head.

If the moon was a whitehead. . . .

Hopefully, you get the idea.

On the other hand, but for the presence of that now-avuncular ex-studmuffin Richard Gere and a truly lame third act, The Mothman Prophecies might have risen to the level of entertainment.

Can anyone explain to me how Richard Gere continues to get work? Without Julia Roberts to carry him, his movies don't draw flies. Look at some of his recent films. Intersection, =Red Square, Autumn in New York—Jesus! Autumn in New York. Now there stands a timeless cinematic achievement. I've spent many an hour trying to imagine the meeting at which this bowser was pitched.


Studio Guy: Let's hear what you've got.

Mr. Pitch: Okay, I'm talking about a May-September romance. Only here's the twist. May is dying, she's got an incurable disease . . .

Studio Guy: Nothing too gross, okay?

Mr. Pitch: Naw, man! We'll give her some kinda cool cancer that leaves her beautiful. Anyway, she's dying and September doesn't know it. All the way through we're doing age jokes. Like how he's going to be pushing up daisies before she gets her first laughline, but . . .

Studio Guy: Yeah, yeah . . . I see it. Irony.

Mr. Pitch: Exactly! Like rain on your wedding day!

Studio Guy: Right!


At this point my imagination fails me. I simply cannot envision the process that would lead to millions of dollars being committed to such a project, so we'll skip over that part.

Studio Guy: Who do you like for September?

Mister Pitch: I'm thinking, y'know, maybe . . . Richard Gere?

Studio Guy: Well, I'm not too sure. I mean. . . .

Mister Pitch: And for May, I'm thinking Winona Ryder.

Studio Guy: Yeah, she might work. But listen, if we go with her, keep an eye on your personal stuff around the set. Watches, jewelry . . . like that. She's attracted to bright objects.


Day-Glo motorsickle X-games in your face Rebecca goes topless while the bad guys go boom . . .

Sorry.

Little Rollerball flashback there.

For about two-thirds of its running time, Mothman manages to sustain a nice level of creepiness. Director Mark Pellington uses his camera to stylishly spooky effect as he tells the story of Washington Post reporter John Klein (Gere) and his involvement with the peculiar events occurring in Pleasant Point, West Virginia. The story begins with Klein returning to Washington in the company of his wife Mary after a house-hunting expedition. When Mary, who is driving, sees something red-eyed and terrifying directly in front of them, a terrible face rushing at her, a face that Klein himself fails to see, she swerves the car off the road and crashes into a tree. Hospitalized after the accident, Mary is diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. Before she dies, she fills a notebook with sketches of a strange, menacing figure, part man, part winged creature. Two years later, the still broken-hearted Klein is on his way to do an interview when his car breaks down on a lonely West Virginia highway—this curious in that Klein has set out driving toward Richmond and has no memory of how he ended up going in the opposite direction. He walks to a nearby house and asks to use the phone, but the owner of the house, Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton), assaults him and holds him prisoner at gunpoint while his wife calls the police. He claims that Klein has appeared at his home on each of the two nights previous, at the same exact time, and he's just a little tense.

Enter attractive police sergeant Connie Parker (Laura Linney). Sergeant Connie escorts Richard back to town and so begins a weird kind of not-quite-romance that helps sink the rest of the movie. I'm not sure what they had in mind for this relationship. Connie and Klein certainly act (perhaps the wrong word choice) like they care for one another, but they seem to have no reason to do so. No connection, either emotional or pragmatic, is ever established between them. It's as if they suffered a simultaneous attack of overweening niceness. Clearly significant cuts have been made in the portion of the film dealing with their interaction--maybe they cut the make-out scenes, not wanting to inflict America with close-ups of the wrinkly Gere posterior. Whatever, there's no sense of any real dynamic left between the pair, and the sweetly platonic, faux-adult gooeyness that results acts to blur the edges of the crackling atmosphere that Pellington has achieved. Distanced by this effect, the audience starts to think about what they're seeing.

In the case of a Hollywood movie, this is rarely a good thing.

The day after they first meet and fall in like, Connie takes to helping Klein investigate all the bizarre occurrences that the townsfolk have been experiencing. Connie's been aware of these occurrences for some time, but felt that making them public would just upset the locals and distract them from their whittling, their banjo-playing, their huffing of gasoline fumes, from all their simple passions. While this does not speak well of Connie's sense of duty, it's comprehensible on a human level. Hey, she's paid to haul in drunks, not deal with some ten-foot-tall winged mo'fo with glowing red eyes. Now, however, she's suddenly interested in getting to the bottom of the situation. (Why? Beats me. Sympathy for the poor widower? A sudden hobbyist's interest in Mothmen? The chance to win a color TV? Foolish to speculate.) Turns out that a goodly percentage of the citizenry of Point Pleasant have had Mothman sightings. Pellington shows us certain of these events in flashback by means of Mothman cam, which illuminates close-ups with a burning light that those observed neither see nor feel (a nice effect, yet it doesn't come to much since we never actually see the Mothinator). Once Klein starts looking into the mystery, his phone goes to ringing at odd hours and strange buzzy voices announce themselves to him. Gordon Smallwood, not the most stable of souls, begins accurately to predict the death tolls of major disasters—this causes Klein to realize that his wife was subject to similar precognitive experiences after her accident. Gordon also claims to be in a contact with someone named Idrin Cole, who may himself be the Mothster or is perhaps one of the Mothster's close personal associates. Soon thereafter Gordon dies of exposure after lying outside all night in his undershirt, and Klein, tormented by Idrin's buzzy-voiced telephonic hints that his wife may be, if not alive, then not entirely dead, travels to Chicago to seek help from a notable investigator of unexplained phenomena—he has written a book about a similar set of incidents and in doing so made scary contact with one of the Mothman's fellows. He wants no part of Klein's problem, but tells him that the Mothmaniac is one of a species of damned souls whose hellbound perspective allows them to see into the future and who delight in luring people to their death.

At this juncture, sad to say, weighted down by the Connie-Klein mess and the woeful incompetence of a leading man whose most believable expression is one of stunned befuddlement, Pellington's spooky souffl� collapses, and the ending, though appropriately cataclysmic, feels somewhat flat. But there's enough here to make you suspect that, freed of Gere and armed with a better script, Pellington could be a director to watch.

Mothman might be worth your while as a video on a slow night, but Rollerball . . . Listen. If struck by the urge to pay seven to ten bucks to see this steaming pile of technicolor upchuck, two hours devoid of characters, coherence, style, intellect, et al, control that urge. Tell yourself that sticking a July 4th sparkler in your retina would be a whole lot less painful and way more illuminating. When you feel that you've passed the crisis point, have them undo the restraints and seek to do something that actually may improve your life more than would performing a two-hour-long lobotomy procedure on yourself.

Like draining your fish tank, or reading up on the history of sewer construction in Latvia.

Or maybe even watching Lantana.